Movies & TV

2019 Cinema One Originals Film Festival: Winners, Standouts, and One Movie That Didn't Deserve to Be On Screen

The festival is an excellent barometer for where Philippine cinema currently is, and where it needs to go.
IMAGE YouTube/ Cinema One
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The Cinema One Originals Film Festival has, for the past few years, been one of the finest showcases of the future of Filipino filmmaking. Its selection committee appears to favor more innovative films, as well as stories that choose to represent the current zeitgeist rather than escape it. As such, it’s an excellent barometer for where Philippine cinema currently is, and where it needs to go.

We caught all eight entries of the main competition this year. There were three exceptional films, a couple of good ones, a couple of bad ones, and one that literally didn’t deserve to be on screens. Here’s what they showed us about the state of modern Filipino cinema, its audiences, and our society as a whole:

1| Sila-Sila: Nothing beats a familiar story told well

What’s it about?

After disappearing without word or warning, Gab (Gio Gahol) crashes back into the life of Jared (Topper Fabregas), the boyfriend he left behind a year ago.

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What did we learn?

The slew of awards this film got—Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Audience Choice Award—at the festival’s close shouldn’t come as a surprise: Sila-Sila was by far the most well-crafted movie in the entire lineup. It is, however, remarkable in that it barely says anything we haven’t been told before.

A study on the relationship between exes and the impact their breakup has on their friends (complete with the whole, “You’re getting back together” teasing) has been explored extensively on film and other forms of art. There is hardly anything novel about the story, save for the fact that it makes an impactful case for better LGBTQIA+ representation in Philippine cinema. And yet the script, direction, and performances by the cast and crew of this exemplary film make it all feel fresh, beyond it having two male leads instead of your usual heterosexual loveteam.

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If there’s anything to learn from Sila-Sila’s success, it’s that people have an inherent need to feel seen. Addressing that need, however, isn’t just a matter of slapping people of diverse demographics onto several frames of film. The manner in which people are represented, in a way, matters more than the representation itself.

Sila-Sila is excellent because of how genuine everything onscreen turned out to be. For once, a local film about two gay people didn’t revolve around the fact that they were gay, but around real experiences. It just so happens that real LGBTQIA+ experiences can be exactly the same as those of people elsewhere on the spectrum. Represent people as real human beings, and you’ll have a successful film. Who’d have thought?

2| Utopia: We’re ready to try something new (in more ways than one)

What’s it about?

A comet flies over Metro Manila skies on a night when players on both sides of the War on Drugs fumble through a comedy of errors.

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What did we learn?

Conventional wisdom used to be that Filipinos weren’t exactly the right audience for absurdist satire, at least in the mainstream. We are, after all, rather prone to falling for fake news (not to mention how absurdity seems to be the normal state of our political discourse).

Utopia, however, thinks differently. The film trusts its audience to laugh for the right reasons, spinning heavy critique of the War on Drugs into a wildly entertaining—and incredibly brave—farce. And for the most part, the satire sank in; festival judges, at least, appreciated it enough to give the film the Special Jury Prize, a recognition of the value it brings to film as an art form.

That Utopia’s novel approach to storytelling is utilized to critique the violence that dominates our headlines isn’t lost for meaning, either. In fact, one might say we need an equally new approach to addressing the drug problem.

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3| Metamorphosis: Representation is brave in and of itself

What’s it about?

High school student Adam comes to terms with the realities of growing up as an intersex individual—people who experience atypical sexual development, resulting in a spectrum of different physiological characteristics that doesn’t match conventional notions of male or female. In Adam’s case, this means having both male and female genitals.

What did we learn?

In a country where the discussion on LGBTQIA+ rights seems to center on the L, G, and T parts of the spectrum, a film that raises awareness on the I—Intersex—could be taken by some as “too much, too soon.” Why should we try to get wider audiences involved in the lives of intersex individuals when they can barely grasp the concept of recognizing transwomen as women?

But this isn’t how equality works, especially when we’re talking about a person’s SOGIE (sex, orientation, gender, identity, and expression). It’s facetious to believe in SOGIE equality, while also thinking that the fight for equality needs to happen one color of the spectrum at a time. The rights of individuals of all SOGIEs need to be uplifted and recognized at the same time.

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True equality demands that one letter in LGBTQIA+ shouldn’t be prioritized over any of the others; otherwise, the “I” may as well stand for invisible.

To see a film acknowledge this, and attempt to rectify it by giving intersex individuals their long-overdue chance at local representation, means that both filmmakers and audiences are ready to see greater diversity on the silver screen. For as much as lawmakers pound on their desks, preaching conservativism regarding SOGIE legislation, they aren’t the ones people are paying to watch.

4| Yours Truly, Shirley: Don’t sleep on mainstream culture

What’s it about?

Fifty-something widow Shirley (Regine Velasquez) falls for 20-something pop star Jhameson (Rayt Carreon), whom she believes to be the reincarnation of her long-dead husband (Romnick Sarmenta).

What did we learn?

We encountered a lot of people who snubbed this film, and it’s a shame. Seeing mainstream performers on the cast tends of be a seal of doom among more elitist circles, who equate the likes ofVelasquez and Dennis Padilla (who plays a suitor to Shirley) with movies stuck in the ’90s.

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It’s automatically “baduy.”

Yours Truly, Shirley, however, was anything but. In fact, it was one of the most intelligently written, most heartfelt, and most modern films in the entire lineup.

Sure, it had all the trappings of a big studio film—gaudy styling, loud sidekicks, a tweeny pop song as a plot device—but those qualities do not a bad movie make. With good writing, smart direction, and performers willing to experiment, any major studio film could turn the heads of even the most bullheaded indie snob.

If the likes of Viva Films could focus more on delivering quality over onscreen ad space, our mainstream film industry could very well find itself in the middle of a renaissance.

5| Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo: We need to move on

What’s it about?

A not-quite couple navigates the emotional pains of being in a relationship without labels, with one party seeking commitment and the other unable to give it.

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What did we learn?

It’s a film that belongs to the height of hugot culture. There really isn’t much else to say about it, except that some filmmakers and audiences haven’t moved on from enjoying romantic misery porn.

And while their enjoyment is valid, it’s also a sign of stagnancy. If Philippine cinema is to grow toward greater heights, it can’t keep producing films that are essentially dramatizations of the spoken word scene circa 2014.

Sila-Sila proved that familiar heartaches can be tackled in a way that feels fresh. Tayo Muna is symptomatic of filmmakers sticking to their audiences’ comfort zones, and producing material that no longer feels as inspired as it might have been five years ago. Instead, the familiarity bred contemptuous characters and dated views.

And let’s be clear: The responsibility of evolving falls squarely on the filmmakers’ shoulders, as audiences can only consume what’s presented to them. If we want our audiences’ tastes to develop better, we need to develop better films.

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6| Tia Madre: Execution matters as much as concept

What’s it about?

A child begins to believe that her abusive aunt may secretly be a shape-shifting engkanto.

What did we learn?

There’s a much greater concept at play in the film, but to discuss it in detail would be to weaken its effectiveness. There is, however, much to be discussed about how the film’s execution did just exactly that.

A lack of cohesion between the movie’s two main styles of visual effects—dreamy, creeping coloration versus cartoonish bursts of red and black—resulted in a film with no consistent mood. Exaggerated “This is Horror” scoring in scenes where nothing scary actually happens have the effect of a ’90s sitcom laugh track: It only creates the illusion of horror because the film itself has no faith in its ability to deliver an emotional experience. A powerful nonverbal performance from one of local film’s most promising young talents is squandered by flickering lights that can literally trigger headaches.

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Which is a shame, because on paper, there is much to like in a film like Tia Madre. It just needed a team that was confident enough in its own product to edit down on the gimmicks—advice that should apply to endeavors outside of filmmaking, as well.

7| Lucid: We’re still behind on tackling mental health responsibly

What’s it about?

Ann (Alessandra de Rossi) escapes the drudgery of everyday life through lucid dreaming—the ability to take conscious control over the events of one’s dreams. Things change when Xavi (JM de Guzman), another lucid dreamer, starts to get involved in her stories.

What did we learn?

While the film might be commendable for its high concept, the positives in Lucid—and there are many—are overshadowed by how potentially harmful the film’s approach to depression and suicide might be.

The individuals in Ann’s life constantly invalidate the depression she experiences, to the point of saying she can just “choose” to be happy. This much is accurate to real life: There will always be individuals who believe depression is fake.

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In 2019, however, most writers have learned the value of presenting a counterpoint to that view. Audiences are impressionable and are more likely to believe what they see in movies than what they feel deep down to be true. A movie character invalidating depression onscreen has a similar effect on the viewer, and it’s a huge reason why the discussion on mental health in the Philippines is still wracked with unnecessary stigma.

There are no such counterpoints in Lucid, explicit or otherwise. And as much as this is the reality for countless people around the world, filmmakers need to realize they play a role in shaping that reality, else they risk making it worse.

This is extremely important in the case of Ann, who wishes she had died in the place of someone who committed suicide. The film ends with the character making a choice akin to suicide, and is vague enough that it might trigger ideation in individuals who are more sensitive to the matter. Because this is presented as a net positive ending for Ann, the movie falls just short of romanticizing suicide, which is incredibly irresponsible messaging.

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In general, it’s interesting to note that Lucid was screened without any trigger warnings, which means that our views on mental health issues haven’t quite gotten to the point where we’re sensitive to how those who have them might be affected by our media.

We need to do better.

8| O: We need to take responsibility for our actions

What’s it about?

Writer-director Kevin Dayrit attempts to tell the story of a closet necrophiliac who works for the Vampire Mafia, and finds herself falling in love with her boss’ sister. Keyword: “attempts.”

What did we learn?

This movie was a complete mess from start to finish. It was incoherent, far too beholden to its stylistic flourishes to present audiences with a film that was at the very least visible in its darkest moments, and suffered so many issues with its sound that key information in certain scenes could only be gleaned from the subtitles, because the audio would suddenly get too muffled to understand. It was pure style over substance, only with questionable style.

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Perhaps the biggest issue with O, however, was Dayrit’s utter lack of accountability for how the film turned out. On awards night, he had a massive meltdown on the movie’s official Facebook page, blaming everything—from TriNoma’s low-quality movie projectors, to the sad size of the set they had to work with, and the absence of props—but himself for the travesty, despite admitting that they were screening an unfinished film.

Let that sink in: O screened as an unfinished film.

Outside of the fact that TriNoma’s projectors are pretty much an open secret among filmmakers and that Dayrit could’ve tweaked the movie’s colors accordingly for the theatrical release, it was the director's responsibility to do an ocular of their set and make adjustments based on his needs; he could’ve found ways to secure props if he needed them. The greatest sin committed here is that Dayrit chose to release an unfinished film. He decided that audiences were okay with paying for an incomplete product. He decided that his producers were okay with funding a film he couldn’t finish.

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He decided that the Cinema One Originals Film Festival was okay with screening a pile of scenes slapped together, pretending to be a movie. And yet he’s the victim of circumstance?

As frustrating as this all is, it’s also a common pattern among us. We’re so used to the odds being stacked against us that we use them as excuses for our personal shortcomings. And it needs to stop. It’s behavior like this that scare studios off of making projects with O’s level of ambition. Producing a film is already a gigantic financial risk, but for a filmmaker like Dayrit to make the cut and make it to the Top 8 entries of this competition just exacerbates that.

With O as a cautionary tale for the dangers of making unconventional cinema, studios have even less insurance that their investments will be worthwhile. Without any accountability on Dayrit’s end, the problem falls back on the film industry as a whole, and of falling where it should: Squarely on the hands of someone who severely underestimated what it took to craft a movie.

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The 2019 Cinema One Originals Scorecard

All in all, 2019’s Cinema One Originals festival showed a lot of promise. It’s rare for there to be more than two standouts in a single run, but this year had four—Sila-Sila, Utopia, Metamorphosis, and Yours Truly, Shirley are all highly recommended viewing. These films, as well as the others that didn’t quite meet their level of quality, all highlight the growing importance of a well-written script. Look for more ambitious storylines to hit the screens as we go forward.

There’s also a greater willingness to hire directors with experimental tendencies, and for the most part, it works well. The diversity in vision and approach made for a robust, if a little uneven, festival experience. There is genuine excitement to be had in wondering what the next film will bring you.

However, the festival also shines a light on some areas that need drastic improvement. Films tackle complex topics like intersexuality with the same level of respect and sensitivity that Metamorphosis does; Lucid’s approach is more the norm. The “pwede na ‘yan” attitude that plagues many major studio releases (as well as our telenovelas) persists even in indie film, in examples like O. And while there is value in nostalgia, there is a real risk of creative stagnancy even in the indie scene, as seen in Tayo Muna.

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These are all, thankfully, relatively easy to address, and the positives we’ve seen this year outweigh the points for improvement by far.

Hopefully, we see even more of this promise come to fruition in 2020.

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